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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 1 DECEMBER 2011 — Psychoanalysis has been called the talking cure, which is probably why it has been such a poor subject for film, a medium that tells stories best when words are kept to a necessary minimum.  The "show me, don’t tell me" cinematic method of exposition is natural for North Americans, who, although native speakers of the world’s richest major language, learn to use only a fraction of its vocabulary — Porsche drivers permanently stuck in second gear behind a school bus. The British are more linguistically adept, which is why their theater is so much better, but they frequently do not know when characters in their movies should zip it tight.

For A Dangerous Method, a new film about the early years of psychoanalysis, an English playwright, Christopher Hampton, wrote the script (based on his play The Talking Cure, itself based on the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method, by John Kerr) and a Canadian, David Cronenberg, supplied the direction.  The result, although more talk than action, has a measured, transatlantic feel that does justice to a subject that is simultaneously emotional and cerebral.

Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics

The story develops from his first use, commencing in 1904, by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) of the then-new methods of the Austrian inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), in the treatment of Sabine Spielrein (Keira Knightley), an eighteen-year-old hysteria patient. Sabine is the daughter of a Russian Jewish doctor who, when she was a child, routinely thrashed her for small offenses. In her sexual maturity, she suffers cruelly from her psychic reactions to those traumatic experiences.

In the course of the film, Jung meets Freud and becomes his protégé and then heir apparent, until the two men have a falling out and go their separate ways in both their professional and personal lives. That is all quite true to history, although for the sake of dramatic compression, their feud is distilled down to Jung’s disagreement with Freud’s insistence that sex underlies all disturbances; Jung’s persistence on investigating mysticism and other non-scientific phenomena that Freud believes the many enemies of the movement will turn into ammunition against its claims of therapeutic validity; and Jung’s belief that a therapist should aim to cure people, as opposed to Freud’s more limited goal of simply making patients aware of what repressed anxieties, memories and impulses have caused their present troubles.

Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics

When Jung first sees Sabine, at the Burghölzli, the hospital outside Zurich where he works, she is, to use a non-clinical term, completely bonkers.  Ms. Knightley plays Sabine’s seeming madness so convincingly, her gesticulations and gyrations made so painfully real, you fear that her jutting jaw and twisting limbs have turned into rubber and will just keep going. Having been carried kicking and ranting into the hospital, Sabine is perplexed when her doctor proposes that all they will do now is talk to each other. Jung sets to work, and the results are impressive — perhaps too easily so, at least to those of us who, in our adult lives, have had more analysts than barbers or hairdressers.

Jung visits Freud, and Freud soon sends to him Otto Gross (Vincent Casssel), a Viennese psychiatrist, anarchist and free-love advocate who believes that repression of desires is contrary to good mental health.  Jung analyzes Gross, but soon Gross is returning the favor by trying to convince Jung that his bourgeois taboos against having sex with his patients is helping no one, least of all the married Herr Dr. Jung.  He should, by all rights under Gross’s philosophy, be getting it on with the virginal but glowingly eager Sabine, who has, in the meantime, begun her studies toward her degree as a psychiatrist.

Talk propels the narrative throughout the film, and the language, which includes actual text from correspondence between Freud and Jung, is complex, elegantly crafted and — the crucial test of fine screenwriting —consistently economical. That is necessary because language is forced to carry the film, there being little physical contact among the characters. Even Dr. Jung and his attractive and wealthy wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), barely touch each other. The only real physical contact is sexual, and although that includes a couple of S&M scenes, you get the sense that each of the characters inhabits a cocoon of his own psychological troubles, whether overt, as with Sabine, or smoothly concealed, as with Dr. Freud himself.

Michael Fassbender and Sarah Gadon as Carl and Emma Jung
in A Dangerous Method
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics

The sense of personal isolation is enhanced by the multilayered divisions of the curious world that the characters inhabit.  Pristine, sensible Zurich and its fashionable suburb of Küsnacht (here doubled by locations in Germany) stand in contrast to the cosmopolitan, bohemian Vienna of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Religion divides as well: mindful of his role as a Jewish provocateur in a Catholic imperial capital that does not welcome provocations by Jews, Freud bemusedly compliments Jung on his Protestant notions of tolerance.  The biggest division, and the one in which Sabine finds herself caught, is the growing and irreparable rift between Freud and Jung, told largely in sympathy with Jung — which is not often done in tales of that early and nearly cataclysmic divide in the psychoanalytic movement.

That it all works — that you come to sympathize with every major character, however odd his or her story may at first appear to be — is an accomplishment rare to commercial film, which so often falls back on a good vs. evil paradigm. Although a movie of ideas is not going to be propelled by non-stop action, there is more than enough to see, and the FX people kept their CGI programs busy by recreating beautiful period settings.  A view of the actual façade of Freud’s famous apartment, now a museum, at Berggasse 19 (a few blocks away from where my own maternal grandmother lived around that time) cuts to carefully recreated interiors, down to the antique statues Freud compulsively collected and that on camera consume any flat surface not given over to books.  For a café scene, there was no need for recreation: the crew shot in Sperl, a popular Viennese café that has not changed all that much in the intervening century; the setting works so well, you want to ask for one of those pastries with a bit of Schlag on the side.

Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method
© 2011 - Sony Pictures Classics

The costumes, by Denise Cronenberg, remind us that it was not so long ago that you could be neurotic or worse but still present yourself to others as perfectly dressed and accessorized (Otto Gross, the proto-hippie, being the only exception). The soundtrack by Howard Shore is restrained, but he does permit himself one good musical joke: after the talk has turned to Richard Wagner, Freud and Jung sail to America. As Manhattan appears before them, the soundtrack plays Wagner’s leitmotif for Valhalla — the hall of the gods.

There are more than enough quips circulating about analysts who are not quite right in the head.(Would anyone who thought his own psychological state not a matter of concern volunteer for a life filled with others’ emotional problems?) It therefore spoils nothing to note that, by the end, Sabine starts looking more normal than the analysts who have founded the discipline she aims to serve. It is Emma Jung, however, who, although the only non-shrink in the room, and despite having a large and immediate personal problem not of her own making, handles herself with consistent grace and rationality. Her reward is to triumph as the most consistently sympathetic character. In a movie about psychotherapy, you can just see that coming.

As for the rest, as another cinematic case study in psychological troubles, Norman Bates, remarked in Psycho, "We all go a little mad sometimes." What A Dangerous Method reminds us is how dangerous it can indeed be to get to know yourself and to attempt to get others to know themselves, and that, if you do seem a little mad at the moment, it is only because your turn has finally come.

Alan Behr is a partner at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He is a coauthor of the upcoming book Navigating Fashion Law. Alan Behr last wrote on the Opening Night Gala at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for Culturekiosque

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